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NATO warns Syria not to use chemical weapons

The use of chemical weapons will be met by an immediate international response, NATO warned.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - NATO told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday that any use of chemical weapons in his fight against encroaching rebel forces would be met by an immediate international response.

The warning from NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came as U.S. government sources said Washington had information that Syria was making what could be seen as preparations to use its chemical arsenal.

Syrian forces meanwhile bombarded rebel districts near Damascus in a sustained counter-attack to stem rebel gains around Assad's power base.

Syrian state media said a rebel mortar attack on a school had killed 28 students and a teacher.

International concern over Syria's intentions has been heightened by reports that its chemical weapons have been moved and could be prepared for use.

"The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable for the whole international community and if anybody resorts to these terrible weapons I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community," Rasmussen told reporters at the start of a meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Brussels.

The chemical threat made it urgent for the alliance to send Patriot anti-missile missiles to Turkey, Rasmussen said.

The French Foreign Ministry referred to "possible movements on military bases storing chemical weapons in Syria" and said the international community would react if the weapons were used.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday told Assad not to use chemical weapons, without saying how the United States might respond. The Foreign Ministry in Damascus said it would never use such weapons against Syrians.

The U.S. has collected what has been described as highly classified intelligence information demonstrating that Syria is making what could be construed as preparations to use elements of its extensive chemical weapons arsenal, two U.S. government sources briefed on the issue said.

One of the sources said that there was no question that the US "Intelligence community" had received information pointing to "preparations" under way in Syria related to chemical weapons. The source declined to specify what kind of preparations had been reported, or how close the intelligence indicated the Syrians were to deploying or even using the weapons.

Western military experts say Syria has four suspected chemical weapons sites, and it can produce chemical weapons agents including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent. The CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred litres of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tonnes of agents annually.

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